Over the last few years, I have had to change the advice I give to my kids about friends, at least on some occasions. We are a family of very loyal individuals and when one of us makes a friend, he or she expects and intends to keep that friend for all eternity. Unfortunately, at various times in the last couple of decades, most if not all of my children have found themselves in what I would describe as an abusive friendship.
I’m not talking about the normal childhood spats and drama. I’m talking about systematic, repetitive, ongoing verbal and/or physical abuse. Because I am so very loyal myself, I started off telling my kids to put up with it. Keep forgiving them, I’d say, and eventually they will learn how to be a good friend from your loving example. Meet meanness with love and eventually good will overcome evil.
I cringe now to think how many times I comforted a sobbing child and then encouraged him or her to go back and try again to have a healthy friendship with another child who made a habit of verbally or physically attacking him/her. I was naïve enough to believe that eventually, love would win. In my heart I believed that love should win. It didn’t. It turns out that there are some people, even young children, who see another’s love and kindness as a weakness to be exploited, and they simply can’t be won over.
I am not a helicopter parent. I am a big believer in letting kids sort things out for themselves. However, I regret some of the times that instead of letting a traumatized child out of painful relationship, I sent him or her back in for another round without really investigating the situation. I did it with the best of intentions. I thought I was teaching the Biblical ideal of “turning the other cheek” and “returning good for evil.” The question then, is, at what point does turning the other cheek become submitting yourself to damaging abuse, and at what point does a parent step in and put stop to it?
By putting a stop to it I don’t mean contacting the other child’s parent and asking them to do something. I’ve never known that to go well. No parent wants to believe that his or her child is a bully. The very few times I tried approaching the other parent, I was told that whatever happened, it was all my child’s fault. I know full well that my kids are as sinful and savage as every other child on the planet. They do and say mean things and they get into fights over really stupid things and they sometimes exclude another kid even though they know it is wrong. But here’s the thing: I wonder, if my child is continually provoking verbal and physical attacks from another child and coming home in tears, why would they keep doing it?
To use an innocuous example, suppose that “Jane” constantly teases “Anne” about her freckles, knowing full well that Anne is very sensitive about the freckles. Anne decides she doesn’t want to listen to the insults anymore, so she fights back. She tells Jane and anyone else who will listen that Jane is stupid because she’s dyslexic. She pinches and hits Jane when no one is looking and then when Jane cries, she claims she has no idea why, or worse yet, tells a concerned adult that Jane attacked her and she was just defending herself.
In this situation, I think Jane would decide to shut up about the freckles after a few bruises and a deeply wounded ego. Maybe there would be some insult wars first, but I don’t think Jane would continually subject herself to vicious attacks if she had the choice of disengaging from the relationship. Unless, of course, her mother keeps sending her back for more.
Does that mean it was okay for Jane to tease Anne about her freckles? Of course not. That is never okay. If Jane’s mother knew about it, she should have stopped it. But so often, we mothers do not know. It was only after my kids were teenagers that I started hearing about some of the horrific things that happened to them as kids–often in church. I’m sure those other kids’ moms had no idea of how cruel their kids were to my kids. And I’m sure my kids did some things that would have horrified me too. I wish now that I had been a lot more faithful to gently question my kids about what went on when they were with other kids.
One of the most heart-rending things I remember was the time that Flynn seemed a little dirty after church (he was in children’s church while we were in the main service). “How’d you get so dirty?” I asked. “From the other kids pushing me down and rubbing me in the dirt at recess,” he said, as if it was the most normal thing in the world–and for him, it was. This happened all the time and he never told us because he knew we liked the church and didn’t want to upset us. Once I understood that this was a systemic problem and that our family was specifically targeted by other kids for being homeschooled, I pulled our kids out of Sunday School and children’s church and we had our own Sunday School in a park near the church–which only made the others hate my kids more. *sigh*
Eventually, I realized that I was teaching my kids to be doormats instead of training them to know when it is okay to stand up for yourself. I know the drill so well. I, too was a doormat as a young child. I was bullied and abused by a succession of other kids, and I just endured it. I never fought back. Not ever. I learned, years later, that the abuse was so obvious and so systemic that the principal called the entire school together to tell them to lay off me.
When I was twelve, things began to change. We were on furlough, here in the States, and I was going to our home church’s Christian school. Furthermore, I had both of my parents as teachers. In two of my classes, taught by my dad, I was seated next to the class bully. He seemingly hated everyone generally, but especially girls and even more especially girls who came from Africa. He humiliated me at every opportunity. I shed oceans of tears. I wanted my dad to defend me. I wanted him to let me sit next to anyone except that kid.
Instead, he suggested that I try to befriend my tormentor. He and my mother pointed out that anyone who behaved as this boy did must be very miserable and lonely. So, because I was a pretty compliant kid, I tried it. I sat down beside “Tom” with a smile on my face and greeted him with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. He laughed–but he didn’t insult me. I kept up my campaign of kindness and he began to respond. A dialog began between us, and that eventually led to a real friendship.
This experience, and another one like it, led me to believe that all enemies can be turned into friends with enough effort and persistence. I no longer believe this is true. There are people who can’t seem to be happy unless they are making someone else miserable. There are some relationships that just can’t be salvaged and in fact should not be salvaged. The other person has to want to be in a healthy, reciprocal relationship. The truth is that some people just want to dominate and humiliate others, and I can’t change that, and neither can my kids.
So, I no longer force my kids to keep going back for more punishment once I realize that they are under repetitive attacks from a “friend.” I want them to learn to say “no.” “No, you can’t treat me that way. No, I won’t stay here if you’re going to talk to me like that. No, it’s not okay to exclude me whenever another friend is present, or belittle me in front of others. No, it’s not okay to make fun of everything that is important to me.”
I also think that at least once, a child who is the subject of these attacks should say, “You know, it really hurts my feelings when you talk to me like that and if you keep doing it, I won’t be able to play with you anymore.” Incredibly, some kids just don’t think about the damage that their words or actions are doing to someone else, and when they’re confronted they can be truly repentant. I have had that happen to me a couple of times, so I feel it’s important to have that dialog and find out if the other kid is just really clueless.
However, if the attacks continue, I now let my kids disengage. I would not continue trying to socialize with someone who constantly belittled, excluded and insulted me, and if I would not subject myself to that, I certainly don’t want to subject my kids to that. It really is okay to stand up for yourself if someone is treating you unfairly.
My dad may correct me on this, but I don’t believe the biblical teaching about “turning the other cheek” refers to ongoing abuse. And I think it is possible to forgive the other person and let go of your hurt without subjecting yourself to further mistreatment. It’s okay to walk away.
I deeply regret the times that I pressured my kids to keep trying and sent them back into a battle they could not win, and instead left them with painfully deep wounds. How I wish I had taught them how to put a stop to it instead of how to put up with it. Even at my age, I’m still learning.